Pioneering initiative encourages improved health across campus

Imagine you’re a student starting a class, and it’s the first day of the new term.  You and your classmates assemble in your classroom, ready for your instructor to dive into her first lecture. But instead, she asks you to close your eyes, breathe deeply and engage in a brief, guided meditation exercise to help you relax and be able to concentrate more quickly on your material.  

Healthy Campus Badge

It’s these kinds of wellness activities that are at the heart of Portland State’s Healthy Campus Initiative, an effort to embed health-promoting activities across all facets of campus life.  

Portland State’s Healthy Campus Initiative grew out of Healthy Campus 2020, a national initiative led by the American College Health Association to promote wellness and meet certain milestones across college and university campuses by the year 2020.  PSU’s Healthy Campus Initiative Steering Committee is comprised of leadership from all across campus, not just the units with health promotion as part of their formal job responsibilities.

“What makes the Healthy Campus Initiative different is that it isn’t a set of separate programs that promote specific healthy activities,” said Julie Weissbuch Allina, healthy campus initiative coordinator and director of health promotion and education for PSU’s Center for Student Health and Counseling.  “Programs that help people quit smoking and walk more while on campus do a great job of promoting specific healthy behaviors. The Healthy Campus Initiative is different in that it embeds a culture of health throughout every aspect of our campus experience.

Portland State’s Healthy Campus Initiative work has focused on improving health in three priority areas, namely fostering healthy mind, healthy body and healthy community on campus.  It does that by encouraging behaviors that promote stress reduction, healthy eating and improved campus safety.

Much of the initiative’s work is guided by regular surveys of the PSU community, asking individuals about their level of stress, eating habits and perceived safety on campus.  In 2016, Portland State participated in the National College Health Assessment. The results found that at PSU:

  • 67% report experiencing above-average stress levels in the last 12 months
  • 55% report having two or fewer servings of fruit and vegetables per day
  • 27% report feeling not safe or somewhat unsafe on campus at night

Participation in the program has been embraced across campus, from the traditional health-focused units to employee departments like Facilities and Property Management.  While most universities engaged in the program focus primarily on student involvement, PSU has made faculty and staff wellness a priority as well.

Faculty and staff can get involved in the program through the new Healthy Department Certification, which was launched last year.  Based on answers to questions asked in a diagnostic questionnaire, departments can earn a bronze, silver or gold certification, or gain useful insights into how their department can improve its offerings to gain the credential.  The goal is to encourage full participation in creating a healthier work environment in their department.

“I have always been interested in how a person’s well being helps them to be a more productive and happy employee,” said Dan Zalkow, associate vice president for Planning, Construction, and Real Estate at PSU.  Dan serves on the initiative’s steering committee and five of the units he supervises have gained the Healthy Department Certification. “I like how the program emphasizes the importance of employees having a healthy work life balance.  I’ve observed first hand on my teams how having the right balance contributes to employees achieving more and being more engaged at work.”

Story by Kurt Bedell